IN A word: unbelievable.
Playing in its first quarterfinals game since 1977, the Jefferson football team (12-1) produced the program’s most exciting win in years — or perhaps ever.
Tristen Jackson lifted the Dragons to a 53-51, three-overtime victory Friday night over Fitzgerald (10-3) by catching the game-tying touchdown in the third overtime and then tacking on the deciding two-point conversion in a monumental win at Memorial Stadium.
“You can’t put it into words,” an ecstatic Kody McDonald said.
But the senior linebacker, who finished with 15 tackles, did a pretty good job doing so.
“This is what people live for; this is what people dream about,” McDonald said.
Students and fans — who had been clutching “We believe” signs all night — engulfed the field, setting off a frenzied celebration for a program now destined for the state semifinals at home against GAC.
Linebacker Wesley Simonton admitted that he couldn’t watch the final two-point play.
“I had my eyes closed,” said Simonton, who finished with nine tackles. “I was sitting there, and when I heard the crowd, the first thing I did was run up to my dad. I’m just so proud of this team.”
While the thousands on hand at Memorial Stadium experienced jubilation when he crossed the goal line, Jackson experienced another emotion.
“Relief,” Jackson said. “I didn’t want to go to another overtime.”
With the victory, Jefferson set a school record for wins in a season with 12 and consecutive wins at 12.
Dragon head coach T. McFerrin, who has been a head coach since the late 1960s, said he’s never been associated with a game like this. This is a group that continues to overachieve, this time beating a very fast Fitzgerald team.
“They have character, and love of each other,” he said. “They have great desire and are just overachievers. They just overachieve. There’s no way we can line up with those guys tonight. They just overachieve every time we get on the field.”
Jefferson gave up a go-ahead score at the start of the third overtime, when Ron Swain scored his fourth touchdown of the night. But the Dragon defenders came up with a big stop on Fitzgerald’s two-point try to keep the score at 51-45. That meant Jefferson could win the game with a touchdown and two-conversion.
“We’d been fighting all night,” McDonald said of the stop. “We’d all been beat. We’d all been battered. We just had it in us. We had one more play left. We always have another play left in us. We never give up on it.”
Jackson then tied the game when he came out of the back field and caught a pass from quarterback Bryant Shirreffs in the flats and scored in the front corner of the end zone.
“We called a play, and I wasn’t the primary target, but they didn’t play me and I was open in the flats and he threw it to me and I just had to get into the end zone,” Jackson said.
The two-point conversion to Jackson developed in similar fashion with Jackson catching a short pass and finding his way to pay dirt.
“It was kind of the same thing,” he said.
Jefferson had built a 31-16 lead during regulation after Sammy Williams scored from one-yard out early in the fourth quarter.
Then came one of the biggest scares of the game. Kicker Chandler Schlutow lay motionless on the field sustaining a hard it during the ensuing kickoff return.
Schlutow — who kicked booted a clutch 44-yard field goal earlier in the game — eventually was carted off the field and taken the hospital after regaining consciousness. The senior was said to be moving and talking when he left the field.
The game, however, seemed to turn after that point. Fitzgerald quarterback Romarius Gaulden broke free on a winding 52-yard touchdown, and Fitzgerald added a two-point conversion to pull within seven, 31-24. Swain followed with a 54-yard touchdown run to tie the game.
But Jefferson sent the game into overtime in the waning seconds when Simonton blocked Manuel Chavez’s game-winning field goal attempt with 19 seconds left.
That’s when things got really interesting.
Swain opened overtime with a five-yard touchdown, countered by Shirreffs who scored from 15 yards out. Fitzgerald missed on a two-point attempt on its touchdown and Jefferson missed its PAT and the game went to a second overtime tied at 37.
Jackson put Jefferson ahead 43-37 with a one-yard touchdown run, followed by a Shirreffs completion to Donnie Hatfield on a two-point play to up the lead to 45-37.
Swain scored again to pull Fitzgerald to within two, 45-43, and Larry Stewart tied the game at 45 when he found the end zone on the two-point conversion to end the second overtime, setting up the dramatic third overtime period.
It was a night of big efforts from several Dragons.
Shirreffs finished with 309 total yards — 228 passing and 81 rushing — as the quarterback ran for two scores and threw for two more.
Williams finished with 47 yards on the ground and his two scores. Jackson had 40 yards rushing and 44 yards receiving with a touchdown run and touchdown catch.
Dalton Hill finished with 75 yard receiving — including two catches for big-gainers. Hatfield had 32 yards receiving and a touchdown catch.
Defensively, Hanon Price had a monster evening with 19 tackles and two tackles for loss. Tradd Porter finished with 16 tackles and a tackle for loss. Austin Mixon had 14 stops, and Connor Paul had 13 tackles.
Jefferson continues to move into territory not seen by the school in three and a half decades.
A victory over GAC next Friday would propel the Dragons into the Class AA state title game in the Georgia Dome.
“It’s indescribable,” McDonald said. “We’ve never been here before. Oh my goodness. This is Friday night lights. This is what people dream about.”
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